Sunday, October 19, 2008

Reconnecting Lexington to the real world

I have, for the past week, been looking at where this country is heading with transit and by this I mean real mass transit, fixed-guideway, rails in the street mass transit. A recently released report from reconnecting America, called Jumpstarting the Transit Space Race has an excellent breakdown of the situation for the country as a whole and I want to consider how that relates to Lexington and the region.

Rising gas prices have prompted many around the country and in Lexington to use transit more and the ridership figures for Lextran reflect this very well. Auto use has actually declined 3% in the second quarter of 2008 while transit ridership increased 5.2% nationally.

One other statistic that has been rising is the number of transit projects authorized. In 1998 Congress passed TEA-21, the six-year funding bill for surface transportation projects and in that bill 221 were for transit. In 2004, Congress passed the SAFETEA-LU, and the transit projects in that bill rose to 331, a roughly 50% increase. Since then at least 64 new projects have been identified in the so called "transit space race" by many of the progressive metropolitan cities of the U.S. Lexington and Central Kentucky are quietly absent from this list. Lexington and its surrounding communities have not mentioned some sort of rail transit to connect them, even though there used to be a very popular interurban system in place.

There are now so many transit projects proposed that it is estimated that the total investment required would be equal to the entire SAFETEA-LU bill, highway and transit combined. A staggering $248 billion and that is just the new stuff. In order to modernize the existing systems to the new 21st century standards, billions more will be needed. Congressman DeFazio of Oregon has stated that "We're loving our transit systems to death". Well, I can say that in Lexington, on the leadership level, we are NOT. Lexington's Council and the "movers and shakers" don't take a hands off approach to transit, they seem to hold it well beyond arms length. Now I'm not talking about buses, what I mean is a real honest-to-goodness streetcar system.

Nobody in Lexington wants to say a word about one of those. Cities like Cincinnati, Louisville, Nashville, Indianapolis, Columbus and a good deal of the cities visited on CommerceLexington trips have talked about, mentioned, proposed and planned these kinds of systems. Many are funding their systems as we talk (or not talk) about ours. With all the complaining about high fuel prices(although they have fallen lately they will go back up) not one person in leadership position has called for a streetcar system to be reinstated. With all the talk of dependence on foreign oil no one speaks of an electric powered streetcar system. When the Planning Commission was told that their latest Comprehensive Plan lacked any mention of real solutions for traffic or transportation for the masses of the future, they ignored the comment and went on their merry way.

Nationally only a small portion of transits 20% of the $248 billion of SAFETEA-LU is spent on fixed-guideway systems, the majority is spent on buses and maintenance. At this current level of funding, all of the currently proposed projects would take 77 years to complete. Lexington, by not acknowledging that they have a need, have put themselves well beyond that time frame.

The report goes on to compare the U.S. to the rest of the world in terms of transit and how we trail India, England, China, Western Europe and even Canada. Denver and Houston have recently won support for entire transit systems from their voters. Actually, voters approved 70% of the transit measures on the ballots from 2000 to 2005. Lexington approved a Lextran taxing measure, but that just leaves us with diesel powered fuel guzzlers and not an efficient one at that. When first class U.S. cities are lacking in transit systems and the needed funding and Lexington is so far behind them, how can Lexington dream of being considered a "world class" city?

Lexington has invited the world to come visit in 2010 for the World Equestrian Games. A world where they understand transit systems and the need to get around the country without a personal vehicle and still be there on time. A world which realizes the distances from Louisville and Cincinnati are but a short train ride. A world who, given the current state of the global economy, may decide to stay home when they find out the transportation situation in Kentucky. We can only pray that this is not one of Lexington's very expensive decisions to become a global city.

Two recent polls, one by the National Association of Realtor and the AARP, have revealed that 23% of Americans believe that road building is a good way to combat congestion, 75% believe public transportation and better land use decisions would be better. The AARP found that many over 50 years of age want to drive less but don't have any alternative.

A lot of what happens in the transit in the next few years will depend on the election this fall. The next President and Congress will decide the fates of transportation and transit for the future generations of Americans. Congress recently passed and last week President Bush signed the Rail Safety bill which increases AMTRAK's funding to twice what they have been receiving. The next Congress could do even better for intercity rail. Reconnect America's CEO has called for a "transit building program not unlike the Interstate Highway building program". I would liken it more to a WPA type program, to build whats needed for America and create jobs for those who need them.

On the local level, we need to begin to identify the transit needs of the community for when, not if, fuel prices get out of reach for those who live too far from their work. Relying on that same fuel for transit will not solve the problem, only prolong the inevitable end. City leaders need to look to the future and other cities, and maybe, just a little bit into the past for the solutions for Lexington's transit problems.

And yes, the problems are there even if you don't see them yet.

No comments: